How Games Of Films & TV Shows Provide Powerful Experiences To Players

How Games Of Films & TV Shows Provide Powerful Experiences To Players
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Narrative in video games has become a subject of much discussion lately—and rightfully so. Video games can provide some of the most emotionally intense experiences in media because of their immersion of players into digital worlds with rich journeys to discover. What makes video games/computer games unique is the sense of “agency” and control that the player is given—the power to shift the direction of the experience through gameplay. Film writer Cory Graham explains what writers need to consider.

Decisions have consequences. This is strongly felt in games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Mass Effect (from Bioware). Characters remember your actions and the course of the story shifts based on the choices you make. It’s not uncommon to experience “regret” upon seeing the unintended consequences and impact your decision has upon a character in the story.

Unlike the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories from childhood, it’s not as simple as flipping back or forward a few pages to choose a different path. The game moves onward and the player is left to wonder about what might have been done differently.  Careful pre-scripting by the writer accounts for a myriad of player choices via branching narratives.

Emotional Resonance

Emotional resonance comes from characters in which you’ve invested either responding to, benefiting, or suffering from (sometimes dying because of) your actions. Controlling the protagonist of the story also places the player into the shoes of that central character as they make discoveries—alternatively awe-inspiring, joyous, and heartbreaking. Difficult moral choices abound. Deciding which character to save can become an agonizing decision the player is left to face.

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Gone are the days of the video game companion character who is simply a copy with a different color costume or haircut. Today’s most skillfully written companion characters such as Clementine in The Walking Dead, Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2, and Ellie in The Last of Us make these games so much more than mere escort/rescue missions. The result is more emotionally resonant than if they were solo journeys, because of the protective bond the player develops to these very “human” sympathetic characters.

In games such as Dishonored and The Last of Us, gamers are given choice in determining the tone of their game by choosing either action or stealth in how they play through a level. Whether emphasizing an all-out blitz or suspensefully and silently taking out enemies, the player is able to set the mood based on play style. In Mass Effect, players can also opt via their choices for either a more virtuous “Paragon” heroic style or that of a “Renegade” (rogue).


Backstory in games can be conveyed in interesting and unique ways. Discovering letters, audio logs, diary entries, memos, emails, videos, etc. can provide information about what has happened to the supporting characters in the story and the game world as it existed, prior to the player’s entry.

The player can also choose to linger in a particular environment as long as the game will allow—and sometimes indefinitely—soaking up all the rich sensory details of a unique, fantastic setting. Signage, displays, advertising, graffiti, architecture, ambient noise, overheard conversations and music (period music or lush game scores) all help to create an incredibly vivid sense of place for the player. Game series such as Bioshock and Mysthave especially excelled in this regard. Myst featured the tagline “The Surrealistic Adventure That Will Become Your World.”  And appropriately so. Bioshock and Bioshock 2 showcased the failed ’50s Art Deco undersea “Utopia” of the undersea city of Rapture.  And the 1912 floating city in the clouds—Columbia—was the setting of Bioshock InfiniteWorlds of great beauty can be seen in games such as Journey and Flower.

Games such as Dead Space, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and The Evil Within immerse players in dread-filled, sinister atmosphere-soaked worlds and environments where they are menaced by creatures in such a viscerally strong way that the experience can sometimes be “too much” for certain players.  It’s too nerve-wracking to continue on for some. Unlike in a traditional horror story, the player is responsible for surviving the onslaught and has to fend off the dark forces—perhaps single-handedly. Hiding one’s eyes from a jump scare or scary image in a game at the wrong moment can lead to the death of the player, whereas a film continues on without consequence.

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Some games feature open worlds for the player to discover—visiting certain locales freely and often in the order the player wishes—versus having a strict, linear narrative, where the player is moved along a clearly defined path predetermined by the game designer.

Set Pieces

Video games can also use the storytelling techniques of a Hollywood film by featuring “cutscenes” or cinematics—-usually non-interactive scenes that give the sense of scale and scope of a big-budget Hollywood movie. These epic scripted moments can drive the story forward in a way independent of the gameplay.  

Big playable “set piece” moments can create buzz in much the same way as action sequences in blockbusters. A rousing orchestral score from a prominent film, game, and TV composers can help to further enhance the emotion–excitement, suspense, or heartbreak–evoked in the player, making moments feel either sweeping or intimate.

In decades past, attempts to create the look and feel of a Hollywood movie were decidedly different. Interactive cel-drawn animated games such as the Don Bluth produced Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace appeared in the arcades in the early eighties. Full motion video (FMV) games, incorporating generous amounts of filmed footage, with limited interactivity, except at key events, were all the rage in the early to mid-nineties. Narrative choice was at a minimum, either your action resulted in success (continuing on) or failure (game over).  In order to immerse the player in the video, correct button presses at precise moments were required to trigger the resulting successful continuation of the game and story. These moments served as a precursor for the “quick time events” that are a staple gameplay device today.

Cinematic storytelling today exists alongside compelling gameplay. The gamer becomes both the viewer and participant in the narrative, playing not only to achieve the game’s objectives, but to see how the story will unfold and what will happen to characters in which they’ve invested.

In order to get gamers to spend more and purchase downloadable content, narrative plays a key role. Getting to experience play through the eyes of another character or to play through a side adventure not featured in the main narrative structure provides an incentive for players to buy more story content. Releasing games episodically–in installments–also drives the anxious player to consume as they’re eager for the next development, much like serial novels and TV episodes.  Structuring game series into trilogies like film franchises encourages player devotion to see the story through.

There are further business and creative parallels between movies and games. Like Hollywood blockbusters, Triple A game titles come with big budgets and high expectations–both in terms of sales and from gamers. And much like in independent cinema, indie games afford players innovative, quirky and artistic visions (via modestly priced experiences) that are free from much of the tinkering and restrictions that a larger film studio or game publisher might exert.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

As with a Hollywood actor bringing a spark to words on the page onscreen–strong voice acting can also bring video game characters to life, with many stirring and memorable performances being delivered by the talent in this arena. Mark Hamill’s The Joker is a particular standout, in the Batman Arkham series. Also, the voice acting in The Last of Us is very strong. Incorporating the voice, likeness, and billing of Hollywood actors as diverse as Vin Diesel, Ellen Page, Seth Green, and Martin Sheen (who have all made recent forays into games) can lend star power to a video game’s narrative.   Unique, distinctive visions from game designers/creators often feature game scripts with sharp dialogue and surprising character and plot twists as well.  Previously lesser known voice actors have gained acclaim and notoriety by putting their own indelible takes on compelling, well-written game characters.  Both laughter and tears can be evoked when playing because of the pairing of these two traditions from the theater—acting and storytelling.

Games are also increasingly partnered alongside accompanying animated features, novels, comics, and graphic novels that expand the game universe and backstory. Often released prior to a game’s launch, as a prequel to the game; they serve to stoke the gaming audience’s interest in the ongoing narrative. These typically act as a narrative bridge between installments of the games and allow a more in-depth exploration of side story events.

Whether every game is capable of being classified as art is debatable. However, what cannot be denied is some games are capable of providing experiences as rich, resonant, and powerful as creative expressions in other entertainment mediums—whether literary, theatrical, television, music, or film. Games are interactive multimedia in the best sense of the word—incorporating video, text, and music and drawing from the rich history of multiple media to craft some of the most compelling entertainment available today.

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